September 4, 2022

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Note: Below is an article from the Chan Magazine - Winter 2021, page 32, "Group Meditation Going Online - Really?"


We republish it here in dedication to Abbot Guo Yuan, all our online Chan practitioners, and volunteers across the world.


Shelter-in-Place. I’m sitting quietly in front of my desk, embracing a freshly brewed cup of coffee. The aroma flows freely and enjoyably. Silence pervades out of nowhere, just like sitting in the Chan Hall, except the occasionally clacking sound of the keyboard, jotting down what comes to mind, a request to share my experience and observation on transitioning group meditation online.

That’s right. Online. Instead of holding the regular Meditation Group Sessions at my local Dharma Drum center on weekends, a team of dedicated volunteers and I have been hosting these sessions online, led by Venerable Guo Yuan, Abbot of our Dharma Drum Retreat Center. Observing social distancing, everyone has been attending from their own home.

The pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives, including group meditation. Almost overnight, Chan practitioners have gone from having their physical presence at their respective locales to being online in one virtual location across the globe, manifesting the resiliency of humanity.

The Genesis

“Wait. What? We are going online? Really?” One of the meditators asked. “The coronavirus is spreading. Today is our last session at the Center. Starting tomorrow, all our programs are on-hold. The health and safety of all our participants - are our center monastics’ (Ven. Chang Shing and Ven. Chang Yuan) top concerns and priorities. We are looking into moving our learning and practice online quickly, and we are open to suggestions on how to do it. In the meantime, please continue to deepen your learning and practice at home.” It was my last face-to-face exchange with the local group, from the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Feelings of uncertainty, disappointment, and sadness can be observed through glimpse of facial expressions, body gestures, and breathing on some. Yet, most eased into gradual acceptance with calmness sipping through, revering Shifu’s teaching of four steps in handling challenges in daily life (Face it, Accept it, Deal with it, Let go of it) in practiced action.

This was the beginning of February, in alignment to Dharma Drum Mountain’s worldwide announcement in late January, before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic in March.

Going Online

In March, we had our first online weekend meditation group session, led by the Venerable. Logistically, it wasn’t a cakewalk to get it up and running. Our technically astute volunteers had to choose quickly a workable video communication tool for online programs. They had to take measures to ensure a secure, safe, and smooth online experience, as well as integrating the tool into our social networking platforms for mass consumption. In addition, they spent many hours showing me how to use the tool, that of which was a great challenge in and of itself. The most fun part was for me to do the same with Ven. Guo Yuan, for him to get familiar with the video tool for the first time, although he did learn the tool much quicker.

Yes, it did take “a whole village” to set up an online program for the first time, just like setting up a Chan retreat, from beginning to end. Yet, it was worth it. And so much more. This program was Sangha’s response to the Shelter-in-Place directives across many countries and North America. The aim was to provide a supportive forum conducive for Chan practitioners around the world to continue to practice and learn online while observing social distancing.

Around the same time, various Dharma Drum programs were spun up online to be in service of the same, as a cohesive whole from the monastics. These responsive programs that we have all been enjoying on the receiving end - were the fruition of weeks and weeks of tireless planning, coordination, and collaboration into the wee hours amongst the Sangha on content, teaching resources, their availability, the scheduling, just to name a few. Then, there were the volunteers working around the clock from all the centers, helping behind-the-scene guided by the monastics.

The Acclimation

The first online session was like the first day of college, the first day of work, or the first day of something new for just about every practitioner and volunteer alike. Most were excited but felt uncertain because of the unknown for being online. Their questions beforehand ranged widely from the tech-novices on “how to use the video tool” of sorts, to the frequent-meditator on “how the online session would feel like” varieties. Our tech-savvy volunteers took care of the former, while the adept Venerable Guo Yuan guided everyone for the latter. He led the participants through a relaxing yet mindful eight-form moving meditation and silent sitting with his calming voice, followed by an illuminating Dharma talk with an engaging question-and-answer wrap-up.

Everyone was looking forward to the weekend sessions after the first one. It did take awhile for most to get acclimated to the virtual setting from the confines of their homes. For some, it was difficult to adjust to viewing everyone else two-dimensionally on a computer screen sitting at home by themselves, versus being together in close proximity of each other at the Chan Hall with a sense of camaraderie permeating in the air. For others, it was hard to arrange a conducive environment or a workable schedule, to attend the sessions and practice at home. It was even more challenging for those with health conditions, as those were the mountains that they had to conquer for themselves, whether physically, mentally, or both. On the other hand, for a few, the online sessions were pure bliss, due to the fact that they live so far away from a local meditation center that they couldn’t have the opportunities to practice in a group setting and led by a very experienced teacher before the pandemic.

Still, the practitioners continued working through their obstacles and attending the sessions, in the midst of pandemic upending their life. Why? Most felt that the very helpful weekly sessions with the Venerable empowered them to pivot from a place of reactivity to that of responsive living. It was never about looking through a computer screen, never about the environment nor the scheduling. They realized that by taking to heart the Dharma expounded by the teacher and the deepening of their awareness through practice - they can choose, not react, how they communicate, respond, and experience life around them (like dealing with leg pains during sitting), while positively influencing their loved ones and everyone else they touched virtually on a daily basis. So, they adjusted, and continued to adjust, week by week.

The Metamorphosis

We are now months and months into the pandemic, with no end in sight. These online sessions have been running like clockwork, while meditators from Canada, Estonia, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Poland, Russia, Taiwan, United Kingdom, United States and around the globe have situated comfortably into their online routine, a far cry from the beginning. The distance disappears between this diverse group of meditators, with technology. They no longer feel that the virtual Chan Hall is out there somewhere, with their practice. Their routine becomes the practice, and their practice becomes the routine, evincing our Shifu, Master Sheng Yen’s reminder to practitioners that the purpose of practice is the practice itself.

Couple of the practitioners have even asked if taking refuge in the three jewels from afar (United Kingdom and Russia) is a possibility. So our dear Venerable Guo Yuan led them through the precious refuge ceremony online (yes, online), for the first time, guiding these sincere practitioners ‘coming home in the Buddha’ as described by the Venerable. The ceremony was performed right after one of the sessions, a really special treat for the new dharma refugees and a joyful event for the witnessing dharma brothers and sisters.

The weekly sessions will continue. So will the transformation of our endearing dharma brothers and sisters from these sessions. One observation clearly comes to mind in this unprecedented time… Impermanence, or change, is always at play. With the coronavirus outbreak, thousands died and suffered, and continuing. Tears of grief, fear and sadness, engulf the world. Incredibly painful. At the same time, help around the world ensues immediately, with empathy, love, and compassion. This one such extreme brings the verity of impermanence to our mind, front and center. This extreme also exemplifies the true character of humanity, when all is being selfless in helping others, at full display. Incredibly powerful. Change is inevitable; transformation is also for certain, if we seize the opportunity positively from the conditions that the causes created. How? When we surf the waves of impermanence with an open heart, the wholesomeness of life metamorphoses, and it is the oxygen for the liberation of our true nature. Collectively from all, the character of humanity is sure to be ever-uplifting.

A New Page

Torrents of thoughts pour through like a rushing waterfall. I can’t type fast enough for them to travel through my hands and onto the computer. They gradually slow down to rivers, then through meandering streams, and flow back into the vast, deep, calming ocean. Time starts moving again. The aroma of coffee and coolness of the desk are still here. What differed are these words imprinted through the computer screen left by the torrential thoughts. And a little wetness around my eyes and on my cheeks. Hmmm. Must be the warmth of the cup. No. That’s not it.

Peeking through the curtains of mind...it’s Venerable Guo Yuan’s compassionate guidance, his wisdom talks, the Q&A sessions, as well as the learning together, practicing together, the life stories meditators shared with me offline, the challenges they overcame, the tears, the joy, the dedication and support we all have for each other. Waves after waves of awe gushing back, surfed with deep gratitude.

Wait. There is more. Peeling through layers and layers of curtains...it’s the ocean of humanity, that is vast and boundless, full of audacity of hope, faith, resiliency, and unity - with the belief that, yes, we can! Never give up, for humanity. Yes, all of us will emerge from this crisis much stronger, brimming with vibrant energy and undiminished conviction to continue onto a new page for humanity. For Dharma Drum Mountain, it is leading the way through its educational platform, online and offline, in the spirit of Chan. Our tomorrow starts here and in the NOW, day after day, week after week, year after year.

Winter 2021

Warren


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